This article is part of the Motherboard Guide to Cinema, a semi-regular column exploring foreign and obscure speculative films.
Humans have been trying to parse illusion from reality for about as long as we've been able to think critically about the world. For Plato, we were like prisoners in a cave, only able to see the shadows of the 'real' world of forms playing on the cave wall. According to certain schools of Buddhism, we project an illusory reality onto a more fundamental phenomenal reality called dharma. A number of Vedic texts reference the concept of maya, an ephemeral illusion that obscures a more fundamental, eternal reality.
These narratives about the divide between surface level illusion and a deeper reality have stayed with us over the millennia, although now the stories are often couched in the language of high technology. Today, simulated realities are in vogue like never before thanks to the Hollywood blockbusters like the Matrix, Blade Runner, and television series like Westworld.
But decades before the idea of a technically simulated reality entered into the mainstream consciousness there was World on a Wire, the spectacular sci-fi odyssey from the German director Rainer Werner Fassbinder.
Released as a two-part television movie in West Germany in 1973, World on a Wire is set in the near future and tells the story of a computer scientist named Fred Stiller who becomes director of the Institute for Cybernetics and Future Science after his predecessor, Professor Vollmer, mysteriously dies.
Under Professor Vollmer, the Institute had created a new generation of computer, called Simulacron, that is capable of hosting a simulated world that is populated by some 10,000 "identity units." These units live the lives of regular people, going about their business oblivious to the fact that they are living in a computer simulation. Their world is remarkably like ours: the sims go to cafes, hangout with friends, work banal jobs. But whether or not these identity units are 'real' is a matter of debate—in a particularly telling scene, Stiller discusses the simulation with his secretary Gloria, who asks whether the identity units are people.
"As you'd like," Stiller replies. "To us, they're merely circuits. But to them, they live just like we do."
"A living world in a box full of microchips?" Gloria questions.
"We're alive," Stiller corrects her. "They're like people dancing on TV for us."
While Stiller finds it easy to dismiss the identity units as little more than electrical impulses generated by a computer, when he ventures into the simulation himself, he finds that the things are a bit more complicated. Of the 10,000 identity units, only one, named Einstein, knows that his reality is in fact a simulation, a contact unit for those working at the Institute for Cybernetics and Future Science so that they can troubleshoot the simulation. Yet when Stiller visits the simulation to investigate a glitch and an attempted suicide by one of the identity units, Einstein breaks down and begs Stiller to take him to the 'real world' and leave the simulation behind.
As Stiller attempts to manage Einstein's crisis and prevent him from breaking out of the simulation, he must also manage a series of increasingly serious crises in the real world. After the media gets wind of the Institute's simulation, there is rampant speculation about how it might be used. One journalist is convinced that the computer is already being used to aid corporate interest and reaches out to Stiller for confirmation. Although Stiller knows that the simulation is in fact being used to predict the future of steel prices for a giant Steel Conglomerate, he stays mum on the subject in deference to the director of the Institute.
At the same time, Stiller begins to notice the deterioration of his own reality. A series of bizarre occurrences, involving hallucinations and disappearances, convinces Stiller that his predecessor might have discovered something about the simulation—namely, that the world Stiller is living in is a simulation itself. By the second part of the film, World on a Wire has developed into a full blown whodunit, where the distinction between reality and simulation becomes so uncertain that it is impossible to tell the difference between the two.
At a time when the leaders of Silicon Valley are seriously discussing whether or not we live in a simulation (and how we might go about breaking out of said simulation), World on a Wire and the philosophical, moral, and political questions it poses feel remarkably prescient.
"So many of these things in World on a Wire feel like they're coming true," said Jay Scheib, the director of Theater Arts at MIT who produced a theatrical adaptation of the film in 2012. "As our relationship to science and technology continues to develop, we just end up realizing how far ahead of its time that film was.It went from being really far-fetched science fiction to becoming a reflection of our time."
In this light, one of the most pressing and urgent questions posed by World on a Wire is how our increasingly sophisticated technologies are being used. At one point in the film, a reporter questions Stiller about who will benefit from the "new generation of computer technology", to which Stiller replies "everyone, if it's up to me." Yet Stiller's boss, who oversees the entire Institute, has very different plans, and wants the simulation to be used for private interest—even if that means taking a few lives to ensure that this happens.
Today, our predicament is much the same, insofar as we're witnessing unprecedented technological development, yet the average citizen has little say as to how these technologies are used. As we stand on the precipice of a revolution in virtual reality and quantum computing, few take the time to consider how these technologies might be used ethically. As Fassbinder's film warns us, failure to consider the ethical limits of technology can have disastrous consequences.
Then, of course, there is also the existential conundrum that arises when one learns that they are living in a simulation. Scheib, like Musk, was inspired by the philosopher Nick Bostrom, whose seminal essay 'Are You Living in a Computer Simulation?' suggests that the answer may very well be yes. For Stiller and a number of other characters in World on a Wire, this revelation that the world is a simulation leads to madness and despondency. Yet for Scheib, there is a certain attractiveness in the idea that this is all a simulation.
"In Simulacron-3 [the 1964 pulp novel on which World on a Wire is based], the concept that we're living in a simulation is turned into a religious thing, a sort of creation myth" Scheib told Motherboard. "There's a certain amount of relief that comes along with knowing we're living in a computer simulation. It makes everything a little lighter."
Scheib's opinion is buoyed by Christian Braad Thomsen, a Danish film director who befriended Fassbinder after he watched his first film, Love is Colder Than Death, bomb at a Berlin film festival in 1969. According to Thomsen, World on a Wire is a stellar example of Fassbinder's uncanny ability to pair existential angst with cosmic irony, even though the film was his only attempt at science fiction.
It also offers an intimate look at Fassbinder's approach to filmmaking—which has often been described as fast (he was notorious for only doing a single take for each scene) and abrasive—as well as Fassbinder's own outlook on life.
"Many people criticized Fassbinder because they think his actors behaved awkwardly and were not very natural," Thomsen told Motherboard. "But Fassbinder didn't believe in such a thing as being natural. He thought our nature was totally destroyed from our childhood on and this is exactly the point of World on a Wire : Nobody is natural, everybody is an artificial creation."
Fassbinder's prolific career (he made 40 films in just 15 years) was cut tragically short when he overdosed on cocaine in 1982 at the age of 37. According to Thomsen, Fassbinder didn't talk about World on a Wire much, and it is unclear what he thought about the film. It had a decent reception when it was released on German television, but it wouldn't have a showing in America until 24 years later in 1997 because the master copy of the film was thought to be lost.
When Scheib tried to track down a copy of the film in Berlin in the late 90s, the only copy available was a closely guarded Betamax tape that was a shoddy recording from when the film aired on television. Fortunately, the master tape was eventually located and in 2010 a newly remastered version was screened at the Museum of Modern Art. According to Scheib, the fact that Fassbinder's film is resurfaced nearly four decades after it was made speaks to the increasing validity of its message.
"It was really a big surprise that World on a Wire launched again," said Scheib. "I think it was swallowed in the 70s because nobody was quite ready to embrace the idea of living inside of a computer simulation. But in the last 10 years, that's become not just comprehensible, but actually probable."